Putting the Public First

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I remember the shock of the journalists on a 1985 media tour of the Rouge River in southeast Michigan when they were told to look down from a bridge to see raw human waste in the waters below.

In 1985?  Hadn’t we taken care of raw sewage by passing the Clean Water Act in 1972?

Not quite.  Even today, in some communities, raw sewage escapes into rivers and lakes during and after storms.  It doesn’t have to.  A little courage on the part of elected officials to raise and invest money in water treatment systems (including green ones) could virtually eliminate the threat.

We may also have believed we took care of the toxins in our drinking water by passing the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.

Not at all.  Last week’s warning to residents of Parchment in southwest Michigan not to drink their community’s water because of PFAS contamination is proof of that.

Before that, there was the Flint lead contamination disaster that began in 2014 and the weekend-long “do not drink” advisory for customers of Toledo drinking water in 2014, the result of a toxic algae bloom.

No, drinking water contamination is not limited to faraway nations.  It’s right here in the Great Lakes region, and in Michigan.

Perfection may be impossible, but we can do a lot better than this.  The fact is that most drinking water contamination uncovered in recent years is preventable and/or correctable — if only our governance system had the will.

Toledo’s 2014 emergency and Lake Erie’s continuing algae mess is the result of elected officials’ unwillingness to take strong measures to curb excess phosphorus runoff from farm fertilizers and animal waste.

Flint’s disaster was the result of gross negligence, at best, on the part of state and state-appointed officials who elevated cost-cutting over basic safety precautions.

And while PFAS contamination is partially the result of long-ago ignorance about this family of chemicals, the continued exposure to these toxins is also attributable to a lackadaisical attitude on the part of state officials after they were warned of the hazard in 2012.  Six years later, thousands of Michigan citizens have been put at risk.

The common element in these crises is not lack of laws or technologies.  It is the lack of political will.  Michigan deserves better — but it will only surpass these crises if the people of the state choose elected officials who put public health and safety, and the public trust, first.


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